Monday, April 21, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Platinum Edition

This set of shorts includes, respectively, the top rated films according the animation industry, international critics and popular vote.

Title: What’s Opera, Doc (1957)
Director: Chuck Jones
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: On Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2 DVD or online here.
An abbreviated version of Richard Wagner’s opera “The Ring of the Nibelung,” this short is purportedly the industry’s most highly regarded cartoon, topping the animator poll “The 50 Greatest Cartoons.” Elmer Fudd plays a Viking on the hunt for a rabbit (Bugs Bunny) who disguises himself as the Valkyrie Brunnhilda atop an obese equestrian to woo and eventually break Elmer Fudd’s heart, with tragic consequences. Jones admits to lavishing the project with far more time than usual, evident in the operatic visual extremes and the emphasis on pictorial humor and timing over wordplay and slapstick gags.

Along with “The Rabbit of Seville,” also by Chuck Jones/Warner Brothers, this is one of the great send-ups of opera, managing to earn both low brow and high brow appeal through its fun exaggerations and clever grasp of staging and music conventions. It remains one of the best known and most beloved cartoons of the golden era.

Title: Tale of Tales (1979)
Director: Yuriy Norshteyn
Time: 30 minutes
Availability: Masters of Russian Animation: Volume 3
“Tale of Tales” is a multi-layered allegory which touches upon national history, personal introspection and universal fairy tale tropes. Norshteyn, considered one of the greatest Soviet animators, structures the film as a series of interconnected memories which merge, recede, nest and shift in a fluid series of symbolic and nostalgic passages. At least three main stories are distinguishable: the tale of a childlike grey wolf in post-war USSR, a young artist at the beach with his fictitious creations and a festival on the eve before the WWII draft goes into affect. The art is a dreamlike collage of painted photographs, exquisitely detailed drawings and decorative landscapes peppered with cutouts creatures. Norshteyn demonstrates a brilliant sense of lighting, making scenes shimmer, glow and sink into shadow with expertise and instinct. His music is a similar collage of classical, tango and poetry.

Soviet censors freaked out when Norshteyn first submitted his work, worrying frantically that the film contained all sorts of social and political hidden messages. They were largely barking up the wrong tree, failing to understand (or perhaps understanding all too well) that the power of “Tale of Tales” came from its spellbinding humanist honesty and emotionally reflective tone. It has since grown to be regarded as one of the landmarks of short cinema and has been voted the greatest animated film of all time by international juries in 1984 and again in 2002. Other masterpieces by Norshsteyn include “The Hedgehog in the Fog” and “The Battle of Kerzhenets.”

Title: The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)
Director: Frederic Back
Time: 30 minutes
Availability: On DVD or online here.
Based on the popular story by Jean Giono, “The Man Who Planted Trees” is narrated by a traveler who happens upon a silent shepherd in desolate foothills of the Alps. When, as young man, he first meets the quiet, recluse, he is impressed by his stoic determination to carry out a self-proscribed task: to plant 100 acorns in the treeless valleys every day. The narrator revisits the site every few years, with absences during the first and second world wars to which the shepherd remains oblivious. After decades have passed, the entire region has become a lush “natural” forest which is declared a national park and celebrated by the local officials, tourists and immigrants who never know about the man who steadfastly planted trees. The art style has a water-colored warmth to it that flows like wind and water and fits well with the environmental themes and good-natured optimism. Originally made in French, Christopher Plummer provides the English narration.

“The Man Who Planted Trees” has long reigned atop the IMDB shorts list and quite deservingly so. The green, humanist themes occasionally border on melodramatic, but the sweeping allegorical charm is quite genuine and moving while the deft skill at story-telling is so realistic that for years many believed it to be a true story. A beautiful film, it should be required viewing (or reading) for all ages.


Mad Dog said...

I love What's Opera, Doc?. It was actually available for free on Xbox Live for a limited time, so I snatched up my copy of it that way.

Anonymous said...

The Man who planted trees is great, May I recommend Evolution of the Red Star and other films by animator Adam Beckett. I saw some of his films at the whitney museum in 1974, closest thing to dropping acid.
Joe D

Mad Dog said...

Completely ridiculous tangent to the subject: I knew somone who worked on the piano of a relative of the guy that scored What's Opera, Doc?. :|

FilmWalrus said...

That's nothing: I know someone who knows a guy who worked on the piano of a relative of the dude who scored What's Opera, Doc?

It's you!

Anyway, I'm glad these shorts deserve their popularity. I saved this group for last hoping for a crowd-pleasing finish.